Wet nurses

A wet nurse is a woman hired to breastfeed another woman's baby.

Having fallen out of favour in the Western world around the end of the nineteenth century, wet nursing has recently been making a small resurgence. Women who want their child to benefit from breast milk, but want to return to work full-time and don't want to pump, for example, outsource the nursing to the hired help. Other reasons for the increasing popularity of wet nurses, according to this Time article, include adoption and breast implants/reductions. Medical conditions that preclude breastfeeding, or insufficient milk supply may also prompt mothers to hire a wet nurse.

The Certified Household Staffing agency in Los Angeles, California, hires out wet nurses starting at approximately $1000/week.

Another related practice that's also becoming increasingly popular is cross-feeding, or shared nursing, where mothers nurse each other's babies. The motivation can be practical, where mothers swap babysitting services that include meals, or emotional, where women demonstrate the depth of their friendship by trading babies at the breast. Unrelated babies nursed at the same breast are termed milk siblings.

My first reaction to this practice is that it carries medical risk. Some infectious agents, such as HIV, can be transmitted by breast milk. And as a physician who's worked at an HIV clinic, I don't assume anyone to be HIV negative until I've seen the blood work, and even then, there's the window period. So that super nice thirty-something mother-of-two Grade 3 teacher that lives next door? I might trust her, but that doesn't mean her breast milk isn't suspect.

And beyond the medical risk, there's the cultural taboo. I've mentioned the contemporary practice of wet nursing to colleagues, friends and family, and the consensual response was disbelief coupled with disgust. I think the perception of nursing as an intimate bonding experience between mother and infant, combined with an overriding view of the breast as sexual in nature, informs this opinion. In other parts of the world, such as Africa and China, wet or shared nursing is much more culturally acceptable.

So is wet nursing and cross-feeding a natural and practical choice? Or is it a medically risky, socially inappropriate practice?

If you were hiring a nanny anyway, would you consider a (medically screened) wet nurse as a more pragmatic choice than pumping, and a more nutritious choice than formula? What if you were babysitting your sister's baby, she were stuck in traffic, the infant were screaming in hunger and you were lactating? What if your newborn were having trouble putting on weight, and your neighbour friend offered to supplement nurse him for a week while you worked on increasing your own milk supply?

I ran into a girlfriend and her five-month-old daughter at the beach yesterday. I mentioned this topic, and that I had been trying to imagine any of my friends suggesting we exchange nursing babies.

"And could you think of anyone?" she asked, curious.

"You were the top contender," I joked.

She laughed. But it was a nervous laugh, and I suspect she was thanking her lucky stars that I weaned Ariana over a year ago.